Ethnic Chechens play a critical if underappreciated role in the conflict now raging in al-Sham. They include the descendants of late 19th century Diaspora Shishan — the Arabic transliteration of “Chechens” — long settled in the region; and more recent arrivals from the North Caucasus, including Chechen muwaḥḥidun of Islamic State or Dāʿish (see box insert), and Chechen jihadis of the al-Qa’ida aligned Jabhat al-Nusra.
An earlier essay considered whether Chechen muwaḥḥidun might return to the Caucuses and ignite a third war with Russia. In this one, we step back to consider in greater depth the central place of ethnic Chechens in the leadership structure of Dāʿish and Jabhat al-Nusra; and on the other side of the conflict, al-Sham’s Diaspora Chechens communities in Jordan and Turkey.
After contextualizing key terms, we assess the connection between modern Chechnya and Jordan, with its substantial North Caucasian Diaspora communities. We then consider the Chechen diaspora of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during which successive migration waves brought North Caucasian émigrés to al-Sham. We return to the North Caucasus to consider the development of Islam there, including the emergence of the Chechen Sufi brotherhoods, the forerunners to today’s Chechen jama’ats; and the development of the jihad variant called ghazawayt. Next, we look at the return of Jordanian Chechens to the fatherland to fight in the Chechen wars with Russia during the 1990s and 2000s, during which time a more fundamentally Middle Eastern embodiment of Islam emerged in Chechnya. After a brief aside distinguishing Syria the historical place-name from the modern national-state of the same name, we look at the movement of Chechen fighters into the region and their organization into highly disciplined, highly skilled units. This includes the putative “Chechen al-Qa’ida,” as well as conflict between different Chechen-dominated factions. We assess whether Chechen jama’ats might migrate back into Russia to restart the conflict there; or broaden the current conflict in al-Sham by crossing the border into Turkey, where the Dāʿish caliphate also claims territory. Finally, we conclude by considering options to address the risk posed by Chechen muwaḥḥidun of Dāʿish, and Chechen jihadis of the al-Qa’ida aligned Jabhat al-Nusra, with particular attention to the place of Russia and Jordan in the conflict.